Who Is ALEC and Why Is It So Powerful?

From voter-ID bills to immigration law, this little-known organization steers American politics.

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ALEC has had remarkable success executing its agenda state by state. Other laws that it has influenced include tort reform in Mississippi that limits the rights of patients injured by medical negligence to hold medical providers accountable, Arizona's "Show us your papers" immigration law and Wisconsin's move to strip public workers of collective-bargaining rights. These laws passed as other Republican-controlled states, not by coincidence, took up nearly identical legislation. Despite ALEC's influence, however, it remains a largely unknown organization.

"That is by design," Rashad Robinson, executive director of the online activist organization ColorOfChange.org, told The Root. He contends that everything from ALEC's dull-sounding name to its lack of a prominent spokesperson is intended to keep the organization under the radar. "It's one of those nameless, faceless organizations that works on political issues. They don't send out a charismatic leader to conduct talking-head duty on the networks. They do their work behind the scenes and leverage elected officials who want to be front and center and who want to take credit for their work."

ALEC's policymaking process involves three legislative meetings each year, geared around the organization's nine task forces, which focus on issues from education to health policy to telecommunications. ALEC offers "scholarships" to defray the cost for legislators attending the conferences, where representatives from private industries and state legislators sit down together to discuss and approve model bills. The model legislation is voted on by the legislators, with corporate donors retaining veto power over the language, and then taken back to the legislators' home states for consideration in assemblies.

"The real problem is that there's no transparency around who is drafting what," said De Lorenzi. "These state legislators are introducing bills, and they're of course not revealing that it was sponsored by ExxonMobil, Wall Street or a drug company. It looks like the legislator has come up with their own idea, when in fact the same bill has been introduced in dozens of states, all sponsored by that same corporation."

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Despite its process of handing ready-made bills to legislators, ALEC insists that it is not a lobbying organization. Requests for comment on this story were not returned by ALEC officials, but in a rare interview with NPR in 2010, senior policy director Michael Bowman explained that the core of what ALEC does is provide an educational service. "We're not advocating any position," Bowman said. "We don't tell members to take these bills. We don't ask them to vote for the bills. We just expose best practices. And so all we're really doing is developing policies that are in model-bill form."

Voter-ID Laws: Not a Coincidence

Details of those model bills have usually been available only to ALEC members, but this summer a whistleblower from inside the organization provided copies to the Center for Media and Democracy, a nonprofit investigative-reporting organization. CMD obtained language for more than 800 model bills approved by corporations through ALEC meetings and made them available at the website ALEC Exposed. Among the bills is the "Voter ID Act," which has been adopted around the nation.

"America saw record turnout in 2008, particularly from black youth, in a number of states -- like North Carolina, Virginia, Florida and Ohio -- that shifted the election. These voter-ID laws are about partisan gain for ALEC," said Robinson. "They understand that if poor people and black people and Latinos get an opportunity to participate in this democracy, then [ALEC has] less opportunity to push things like three-strikes-you're-out laws, or the prison industrial complex or tax breaks for corporations -- things that ALEC really cares about."

States legislators who have passed voter-ID laws, mirroring ALEC's model bill demanding strict forms of government-issued photo ID in order to vote, insist that the laws are needed to prevent voter fraud. They also contend that getting an ID is simple.